Chris Stedman: The Prophet
By Sam Lansky
Born and raised in Minnesota, Stedman grew up secular but turned to religion for answers in his early adolescence as his parents’ marriage dissolved. He connected with an evangelical faction of the church just as he was beginning to struggle with his own sexuality. After his mother found his journal, where he had been documenting his private longings, she intervened in an effort to pull him from the fundamentalist church where he had found a community toward a more inclusive Christianity.
“She immediately picked up the phone book and called churches until she was able to speak with a minister she thought would be able to give me the perspective that I needed,” Stedman says. “The fact that that was her instinct set me on the course toward what I’m doing now. She didn’t have any kind of language or framework for doing that, but instead of dealing with her personal reaction to my sexuality, her initial response was I want to make this situation better for him. That’s what she has modeled for her entire life. It’s about trying to meet people more than halfway. It’s about prioritizing understanding.”
That chapter of his life as a fundamentalist Christian also laid the groundwork for his eventual role as a bridge-builder. “Having those experiences when I was younger -- of being misunderstood and abused -- was the result of the tribalistic mindset,” Stedman says. “That exclusion and the damage it did to me, that experience of being ‘othered’ in that way, gave me empathy for people who have experienced that. I do get the question, ‘You really suffered at the hands of Christianity, so why would you be interested in trying to promote a conversation between Christians and atheists?’ But interfaith dialogue gives people the opportunity to see that there are many different ways of being in the world, and that has to be extended to everyone. If that message had permeated the church that I converted into when I was younger, I would have had a very different childhood.”
While this issue may be an important one for Stedman, it’s not a conversation many atheists are interested in having. The world’s most-popular atheist blogger, PZ Myers, who won the 2011 International Humanist Award, has called Stedman a “slithery, soppy interfaith wanker.” In a recent conversation, Myers clarifies his position. “Interfaith is the antithesis of atheism,” he explains. “We do not believe in faith. We want to stand out as independent people of integrity. We want to be regarded as atheists, people who reject religion. This is somebody who’s making excuses for faith—and we don’t think faith is important. We think faith is dangerous.”
Indeed, atheists tend to be wary of Stedman’s compromising nature. Last year, he engaged in a high-profile exchange with the writer Sam Harris, who argued in favor of profiling Muslims. Stedman wrote a response inviting Harris to visit a mosque with him. (Sample quote: “I know you’re a busy man, but I’d like to ask you out. Will you go to mosque with me? I’m not trying to convert you to Islam. Like you, I’m not a Muslim. Like you, I don’t believe in any gods. I’m happily, openly atheist. A queer atheist, even.”)
He also made headlines when he boycotted the retailer Lowe’s after they pulled advertising from the TLC series All-American Muslim following complaints from consumers; his tweets to them were the first to prompt a response from the retailer.
That’s typical of the type of change incited by Stedman’s work, one inch at a time as he’s pushing with all his might. If it’s naïve to expect this type of dialogue to have a more meaningful impact, Stedman insists that increasing the quality of the conversation has more profound consequences than simply closing the gap between atheists and the faithful. “I think that changing the tone of the conversation about religious differences could lead to advances in a number of different arenas, including LGBT equality, as it’s tied to questions of religious belief of morality,” he says.